2024 Organic Commodities and Livestock Conference

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On March 1st, we gathered with nearly 150 producers, researchers, and industry professionals at the University of Mount Olive for the 2024 Organic Commodities and Livestock Conference. The conference, hosted in collaboration with Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, featured 14 sessions on diverse topics including soil health, year-round forage management, and climate-smart practices. Attendees participated in interactive demos such as the use of a water-wheel planter and a hands-on session on lambing and kidding. While there were many fantastic presentations, we’d like to share a few highlights.

Small ruminants in a field grazing.

Photo credit: Carolina Farm Stewardship Association

Organic and Non-GMO Grain Roundtable

In a panel focused on organic and non-GMO livestock feed, we were joined by Billy Carter of Carter Farms, Jeff Bender of Bender Farms, George Teague of Reedy Fork Farm, and Melinda Fitzgerald of Country Farm and Home. These panelists offered a diverse perspective and shared their story on how they decided to move into the specialty market of organic and non-GMO feed-grain. Billy Carter shared that he had been using organic practices since the National Organic Program began, seeing an opportunity to get higher compensation for sustainable practices and diversify their farm’s income. Jeff Bender and George Teague shared that they had some similarities in their decision to move into the non-conventional grain market. Jeff began non-GMO grain production and George began organic grain production in an attempt to diversify income and add revenue to their existing dairy businesses. Over time, both Jeff and George shifted their businesses more towards producing and distributing organic and non-GMO grain for specialty markets. Melinda Fitzgerald shared that when she joined Country Farm and Home, she felt there was a gap to fill in the availability of organic feed despite robust and localized niche livestock production in the region. Our panelists discussed the benefits and challenges of the organic marketplace, differences between certified organic production and non-GMO production, as well as meeting an increasing consumer demand for corn-free or soy-free feed. 

A group of people in a room listening to a panel of speakers.

Photo Credit: Carolina Farm Stewardship Association

There was discussion about the grain buyer’s ability to educate their customer base on livestock nutrition and locally sourcing alternatives to corn and soy. Melinda Fitzgerald shared that in an attempt to find a non-soy protein component to their feed, they had been able to source field peas from a producer in Georgia, however once this producer stopped growing this crop she had to source peas from Canada, adding a great expense to the feed. Melinda was able to explain this to her customers and add the perspective of a trade-off between locally sourced and soy-free feed. Having an open dialogue with customers can help balance meeting their values while providing a perspective on the reality of sourcing ingredients.

A consistent theme of the panel discussion was the importance of building connections with other organic producers in your community. Melinda and George emphasized in growing their organic feed businesses the importance of developing a strong base of organic producers they knew well and were able to rely on. Jeff, George, and Billy, who all actively produce grain, each noted that the relationships they’ve built with other organic producers has helped their operation succeed through sharing and gaining knowledge of production and markets.

Technical and Financial Resources for Climate-Smart Agriculture

Kim Butz, a Soil Conservationist with Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, discussed opportunities for climate smart farming within the Southeast. Climate change presents an array of challenges for both conventional and organic producers, threatening to negatively impact the yield and quality of crops, and intensifying challenges of weeds, pests, and disease. For organic producers, the challenges of intensified disease, weed, and pest pressure are of particular concern.

Kim walked participants through two grant opportunities for producers in North Carolina which are providing compensation for the adoption of climate smart practices: the Southern Piedmont Climate-Smart Project, led by the Rodale Institute and the Climate-Smart Farming & Marketing project, led by PASA. Participants learned the differences between these projects including what methods each project requires, data, financial responsibility for implementing practices, as well as compensation. 

The Southern Piedmont Climate-Smart Project is a regional project which spans the Piedmont region within Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. This project targets both organic and conventional diversified vegetable farms within the southern Piedmont and aims to collect further information on how climate-smart practices impact soil health and greenhouse gas exchange. Participating farmers will receive seed, reimbursement, and cash incentives for participation. The Climate-Smart Farming & Marketing led by PASA spans 15 states from Maine to South Carolina, participating farmers will receive financial incentives and tailor a climate-smart plan to their operation’s goals. Within the Climate-Smart Farming & Marketing project, enrolled producers will actively participate in data collection to provide information about soil health, water quality, and carbon sequestration and cycling. 

Selecting a Cover Crop with New Tools

Cover crops can serve as a useful tool for organic producers to combat weeds, diversify their rotations, or provide nitrogen to the following cash crop. Chris Reberg-Horton spoke about a number of new online tools available to producers looking to incorporate cover crops on their operation. These tools include a cover crop selector tool, seeding rate calculator, cover crop economic decision tool, and nitrogen calculator. 

Attendees learned about the newly released Cover Crop Selector Tool, an online platform in which producers can choose a cover crop species based on their climate, site conditions, crop rotation, and management goals. Based on the selection criteria, producers are able to see what cover crops may best match their operation’s environment, rotation, and management goals. Additionally within the tool there are detailed profiles of cover crops discussing their benefits, resilience in marginal environmental conditions, seeding rates, and planting date and termination windows. 

A screenshot of an article on Crimson Clover.

Profile of Crimson Clover, in Cover Crop Selector Tool

Chris also spoke about the Cover Crop Nitrogen Calculator (CC-NCALC), a tool that can help producers estimate the nitrogen contributions of different cover crops and availability of nitrogen for the following cash crops. Nitrogen contributions of cover crops will differ based on the biomass of the cover crop, time of termination, and C:N ratio of the cover crop. This tool walks producers through these calculations so they can accurately estimate the amount of nitrogen they’ll need for their following cash crop.

Future Opportunities and Support for Organic Agriculture

This conference provided producers, technical service providers, and other key stakeholders a chance to gather and discuss complex challenges that organic commodity crop producers face in the Southeast. The Organic Commodities and Livestock Conference was supported by the Transition to Organic Partnerships Program, a USDA funded multi-year cooperative agreement of regional partnerships. The goal of the program is to reduce barriers to organic certification and facilitate relationships among growers who are currently certified organic or considering a transition to organic production. Three upcoming opportunities for producers to participate in this program include:

Focus Groups North Carolina and South Carolina, Carolina Farm Stewardship Association will be facilitating six focus groups in North Carolina and South Carolina in 2024 to gather more information on current barriers and challenges to organic certification, organic production, as well as opportunities and motivations for becoming certified organic. These focus groups will also be an opportunity for producers to connect with other producers in their region who are either certified organic or those considering organic production. The first focus group in North Carolina hosted at the Chatham County Agriculture & Conference center in Pittsboro, NC April 12th from 6-7 p.m. Registration for this focus group is available through Carolina Farm Stewardship Association’s website.

Survey for Organic Growers and Growers Interested in Transitioning to Organic Production, North Carolina State University is seeking feedback from growers who are certified organic or interested in organic production to assess the regional needs and challenges producers are currently facing within the Carolinas. This anonymous survey will be used to inform future programming and activities. If you would like to participate in this survey please access through the following Qualtrics link

TOPP Mentorship Program, The Transition to Organic Partnerships Program is hosting a mentorship program to build relationships between producers looking to transition to organic production and facilitate the transfer of knowledge from producers who have experience in certified organic production. Participating mentors will be compensated for their time assisting mentees, and mentees are will receive funding for educational events. For more information on participation in this program and applying to this program please visit the Transition to Organic Partnership Mentorship Program website.

We want to sincerely thank all who were able to join us at this year’s Organic Commodities and Livestock Conference. Thank you to University of Mount Olive for hosting us and participating and thank you to Carolina Farm Stewardship Association for their partnership and effort in hosting this event.